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R&R 056 | The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray
First published in: 1890
This edition: 1) Oscar Wilde stories, Collins Clear-Type Press, year unknown, and 2) Wordsworth classics, 2001 (which included via notes the material which had been cut from the book due to controversy).

R&R 056 | The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Karin Elizabeth

In this highly original work, Oscar Wilde tells the story of a young man, Dorian Gray (so handsome he is considered beautiful) a muse to painter Basil Hallward, who‘s working on creating a portrait of Dorian Gray.

When Basil’s friend Lord Henry notices the infatuation Basil has with his model, Lord Henry grows curious after this mysterious young man who has brought his friend so much… inspiration. He wishes to meet with him; Basil reluctantly agrees. And when Lord Henry does meet Dorian Gray, a terrible change takes place: the corruption of Dorian Gray’s pure character. The once innocent young man is intrigued with Henry’s opinion on what life should entail: to indulge in any kind of pleasure, to enjoy beauty and being beautiful.

Dorian now values youth and beauty above everything else and becomes envious of his now finished portrait, which will remain young and beautiful forever, whereas Dorian would age and become despicable and ugly in real life. A desperate plea turns it all around; suddenly it is not Dorian himself whose appearances change due to age or ugliness, but the Dorian in the portrait Basil Hallward has painted. With his newfound feeling of immortality and invincibility while under the continuing influence of Lord Henry, there’s no telling what Dorian Gray will be capable of…

The Picture of Dorian Gray stirred up quite the controversy in its days; the book contains homosexual elements which are never literally stated, but very much implied. Though Wilde’s life was turned upside down a few years after the story was published (the author taken to court and imprisoned because of his own homosexuality), I do applaud him for what he had written. And I’m glad to have also read a version of the book as Wilde intended it, the material that had been edited out due to its controversial homoerotic nature added back in, in the form of notes.

It pains me that The Picture of Dorian Gray in itself was seen as immoral – and by quite a lot of people, it probably still IS considered immoral – simply for containing homoerotic elements, while the book itself contains one of the most important messages on actual morality that there is, namely: real beauty and goodness will reveal itself through character and actions. The book was treated like a dirty, contagious disease, a bad influence. While the only bad influence in this book was Lord Henry, really. (Although he was an enjoyable character, clever in his remarks.)

The above strikes me as ironic, since Oscar Wilde was of the Aesthetic Movement (…like Lord Henry), stating that art (including literature) should be enjoyed for its beauty (“Art for art’s sake”) and not have any immoral OR moral meaning. Wilde’s preface clearly states this. Though I agree that there’s nothing immoral about what was or perhaps still is considered to be immoral about The Picture of Dorian Gray (the homosexuality), I do see a moral significance in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Dorian Gray, the character, embodies two themes: beauty and immorality. In his case, it’s impossible for beauty and immorality to co-exist; Dorian’s beauty is destroyed by his immoral actions. The message is very clear: beauty on the outside is meaningless when your actions are ugly. The moral of the story.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is most certainly one of the most original novels I’ve ever had to pleasure to read, and I regret not having read it sooner, because it turns out to be quite valuable. Yes, Oscar Wilde, your book is enjoyable in itself, as it’s thrilling and witty, but the book is more than simply “art for art’s sake”. And that’s what makes this a real accomplishment, in my most humble opinion.

(Note: a movie is set to come out soon, starring Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray, and Colin Firth as Lord Henry. A phrase well known, and very suitable in this case: read the book before you see the movie.)

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R&R series (and its photos, reviews) © Karin Elizabeth 2008-2009